Babulal is in the house
So I promised I would post more on the dominance thing.
As we have been forced to realise, if you have two dogs, you can’t afford to half-train them. It’s all or nothing, because if you don’t train them, they’re going to be at each other’s throats. In fact, it was the tension that was developing between Babulal and Putlibai as Putlibai grew up that caused me to go online and research dog behaviour.
A lot of the things I read about new research into how dogs think made perfect sense. Many of the things Babulal does that had us foxed suddenly swam into focus. If you grasped that he was thinking like a dog, and not a human, then his motivation was perfectly clear. To explain what I mean, let me first explain the idea of the ‘alpha’ who leads the pack.
Pack behaviour originated in wolf societies, and imperfect remnants of it still exist in dogs. Having a pack with a well defined hierarchy is an efficient way of managing a society, since everyone knows their place and resources and duties are allocated quickly and without debate. The leaders of the wolf hierarchy, the alpha male and alpha female, have both privileges and duties. They lead the hunt and provide for the pack, they are the only ones who breed, and they get to eat first or share any resource first. They are greeted before they greet, and have a personal space that others are not allowed to invade. However, the danger of a hierarchy is that it is liable to be destabilised if the leader is removed, hence on certain occasions it must be recalculated. The importance of this will be explained in a moment.
Popular belief sees the alpha as a fierce, mean creature whom nobody crosses, who enforces their rule with their teeth. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact an alpha fights less than other dogs: the lower down on the rungs you are, the more you have to face bullying from the higher dogs. The alphas are more like CEOs: they decide the objectives of the pack, where the den will be, what creature will be hunted and who gets what from the results, whether to move, and who if any shall be driven out. They are the first to face danger or pioneer unknown spaces at whatever personal risk. It is that last point that was crucial to our understanding of Babulal.
Now all dogs, in default of signs to the contrary, assume that they are alphas. This is because a pack without an alpha is doomed, so if a dog sees no one is doing the job of alpha, he takes it upon himself. Dogs continually test their surroundings against a checklist in their heads whereby they determine whether they are alpha or not. The checklist is as follows:
- Who controls the food, eats first from it, then decides who gets what?
- When the pack is reunited after a separation (someone goes out, or even to the next room for a couple of hours) who greets whom, and who ignores whom?
- When there is danger or the unknown, who goes first to meet it?
If the answer to all of these questions is one name, then that one is the alpha, and peace and calm reign in the pack. However, if the dog’s own name is the answer to any one question, then it gets confused. Confusion in a doggie brain breeds insecurity and fear, especially if the challenges to the pack are beyond the dog’s capabilities to handle. He just can’t do the job of alpha, but no one is relieving him of the job, so he soldiers on regardless, getting more and more psycho as he fails to measure up.
The mistake we made with Babulal was that while we were very clear on point 1 (we control the food and dish it out) we weren’t doing well on 2 and 3. Since when he was a puppy, I would always stir his food with my bare hands so he’d know by my smell that I had given it to him, and he always had to sit and watch while his bowl was put down. Same for Putli when she came. Interestingly, after she went on heat she became very unreliable in sitting for meals.
However, we were not so good on points 2 and 3: we would pat him on demand, or without demand, and we would let him barge ahead of us through doors. What we should have done is ignore his attempts at getting our attention whenever we came home till he stopped jumping and yelping, then for five minutes of silence thenceforth, after which we should have called him, made him sit and patted him.
This is because alphas do not greet, they are greeted, and if you pat your dog when he asks for it, or (even worse) before he asks for it, you are placing yourself below him in the hierarchy, and also missing an opportunity to make him work for his pats. Dogs test the hierarchy after a reunion by effusive greeting: when a pack reunites after a hunt, the alpha may well be killed or injured, and the pack always has to recalculate its positions. This is different from how apes do things, which is why we don’t get it. Also dogs should never get anything without working for it: Nothing in Life is Free, or NILIF, as a principle of training. It’s a pretty good pirnciple for human relations too.
The second thing we did wrong is we often let him barge through doors ahead of us, or run ahead if he saw something, a cat or a bird. This gave him the idea that he is allowed to be first to meet danger. This is probably the root of Babulal’s excessive fear of other dogs, which sometimes shows as fear aggression. Since we started de-alphaing him, he shows less aggression and more simple fear.
Babulal’s alpha confusion primarily manifested in his bizarre habit of nicking stuff that belonged to us: slippers, car keys, mp3 players, used underwear, and ostentatiously chewing it under our noses. We wrongly dealt with this by yelling at him and forcibly taking the things away. This only made him do it more, because we hadn’t addressed the underlying cause: the fact that as alpha, he saw the things as his, not ours. Yelling and screaming is a very non-alpha behaviour.
What we should have done is calmly offered him a treat, while not actually allowing him to have it. He can’t eat the treat and chew stolen goods at the same time, so he’d have to drop it. As he drops it, we say the command (in this case Dao) and reward him once he’s dropped it. That would be the start of dealing with the behaviour. In most dog training systems, one starts with the end of the behaviour one wants and works backwards to the beginning. In this case, we want him not to take our stuff at all. Since he does take our stuff at present, the first thing he has to get into his doggie brain is: if you take stuff, you can get a treat for it (as opposed to getting yelled at) IF YOU GIVE IT BACK. Preferably unchewed.
Properly internalised, this should have him actually doing something potentially useful (picking up your stuff and giving it back on command) instead of the annoying things he used to do before. It helps if you teach the dog to play fetch (Babulal knows and enjoys that game) because the dog does have a positive association with giving you SOME things. Babulal now gives things back on command about 80 percent of the time if you have a treat nearby. His rate of success goes down without the treat, but we have made a start in undoing all the bad training we’ve given him!
Since December we have been systematically de-alphaing him. At first it was hard, because it looks like you’re being mean to your dog, but in the long run it will do him a world of good. He’s already more relaxed and more manageable.
This is how it goes (and you can find a better account of it in Jan Fennell’s The Dog Listener.)
How to de-alpha a confused dog
For the first 48 hours, ignore your dog. Feed him without looking at him, don’t talk to him, don’t pet him, take him out without even saying ‘heel’. The dog will probably behave really badly, jumping up and down extra hard to get your attention, because bad behaviour has always been yelled at, if nothing else. Expect really crazy behaviour, like tearing around the house or howling. Ignore everything like a zen monk.
Eventually your dog will give up. He will then sleep a particularly deep and relaxed sleep. This is a very good sign. When he wakes up, call him to you. If he comes, give him a treat and pat him (but don’t overdo it). If he doesn’t, continue to ignore him for an hour before trying again. Keep this up until you get a reliable name response nearly every time. This is going to be the foundation of obedience.
Before you feed the dog, put his bowl on a table and keep some human food on a plate next to it. Everyone in the house should eat something form the plate before you give the dog his food. It can be just a biscuit: dogs understand the symbolism. When I tried it with Babulal, even though he has never been pushy about food, you could tell by his face that he understood what was going down. He paid extra attention to my every move. You know you’re on to something when you get that look: it means you’re speaking dog.
For some dogs, this routine of ignoring for five minutes when greeting and fake-eating from his bowl may have to continue lifelong in order to prevent obstreperous alphaism. For others, they catch on and modify their behaviour pretty quickly. Babulal is stubborn about some things but accommodating about others.
Always go through doors and into new areas first. Keep your dog on a leash and hold him back before you go through. Even better, teach a reliable sit-stay. Make the dog sit a few feet away before you open the door. If the dog gets up before you go through the door, shut it and set him down again. Repeat ad infinitum till he gets it. It’s worth doing this forty, fifty times in one go (so do this when you have time in hand) because if you stop the dog twenty times for getting up early, then let him through the twentyfirst time because you’re bored, then he’ll learn that if he just keeps doing his bad behaviour long enough, he’ll eventually get what he wants. So if he fails to get it before your patience runs out, cancel walkies. if you walk away and pretend you’re not taking him, he’ll probably eventually come round. The important thing to remember is that you are the source of all awesomeness in your dog’s life, and he better believe it. if he doesn’t do what he must to please you, no yummy.
It’s best, of course, to bring your puppy up right so you don’t face these problems. Prevention is way better than cure. Also, it’s important to remember that it’s far easier to replace a bad behaviour with a good one than to knock a bad behaviour out of the window. Dogs don’t understand NOT doing something. If your dog jumps, teach him to sit instead: he can’t jump while sitting, can he?
More on this later.